Hearthstone's "Mean Streets of Gadgetzan" is out in the wild, once again throwing the meta into chaos as players discover new strategies and combinations, make new deck types, and then build counters to dominant decks. On the surface the concept behind Mean Streets seems simple enough: three distinct crime families run the show in Gadgetzan, and each enlist the assistance of three of Hearthstone's classes.
Like all of Blizzard's expansions for the collectible card game, though, it went through months of iteration and experimentation to reach its finalized state. Shacknews talked with designer Matt Place and art director Ben Thompson about all the work that led to the seedier side of Hearthstone.
Cops, Robbers, and Orcs
Mean Streets always revolved around crime, but early in development the team had a very different concept, which Place describes as "cops and robbers." This was before it had settled on specific mechanics or how to divide the classes between the factions. At this phase of the design process, it's all about establishing mood. Place said that while they had played cops-and-robbers games as kids and liked that vibe, the team ultimately decided to focus squarely on the robbers.
"We wanted to have this sense that Gadgetzan was overrun. That there was absolutely no end to the number of crime families, but certainly criminals," Thompson said. "You'll see that even in the set now. Even though there are three defined families, there's still tons of cards in the set that point to those criminals not affiliated with any of the families. Or they're a crime family of one. There's so much humor you can find in having this many criminals packed into a single city."
So it was settled. Rather than a battle between cops and criminals, it would divide duties between crime families, each with their own unique hook. The team started brainstorming, originally planning four families in all.
"We had ideas for Jade Lotus early on, Kabal came later. We knew we wanted to go to this vibe of old mafia movies," Thompson said. That decision to just do three was really strong. It paid off in the end to have this super defined vibe, more than when there were four."
Never Go Against the Family
But what would the families do? Place said the original concept also included giving cost reductions to the three crime faction Legendaries, similar to a Giant card. The cost would slowly tick down as you used that family's signature flavor. Having access to a powerful effect as a reward for ingratiating yourself to the crime bosses made for good flavor, but limited the design space. This set ultimately went the opposite direction, with more low-cost Legendary cards than most expansions, as a matter of functionality.
"Don Han'Cho costs seven, but Hobart [Grapplehammer] costs two, and that plays well with his mechanic," Place said. "It doesn't play as well if they all live 'up there.' The long-term value that a lot of cards provide in this set plays well in that lower space. Like if Kazakus cost 9, you probably wouldn't pick the 1- or 5-cost potion, you'd probably be picking the 10 a lot more often. A lot of the family mechanics are an investment in your future, so it tends to play out that way."
The Grimy Goons, with their hand-buffing mechanic, were among the first to get all the kinks ironed out. It did go through different iterations based on whether the cards would buff the player's hand, or deck, or cards in play. For Paladin, that meant buffing multiple cards at once, while Warrior and Hunter have to do more careful hand management to make sure the buffs ping the correct minion. Place said some of the design steps are still visible, like with Hobart, which buffs weapons in both your hand and deck.
"For Jade, we actually had different mechanics. We knew we wanted to do this scaling, the more Jade you played the better it gets," Place said. "We started with something closer to Spare Parts. You were getting different cards in your hand that would scale. So maybe you'd get a card that dealt one, then it would scale as you generated more of these. We eventually landed on, hey, let's put it into play. You can have a lot of the fun of the scaling without all the hand-jam. And it helped differentiate it more from the Grimy Goons."
And while both the Grimy Goons and Jade Lotus have a faction Legendary that makes for a powerful effect based on the family's mechanics, the Kabal design process came in reverse. Team 5 had the flavor concept locked down, but it took coming up with the Legendary to define its central gameplay hook.
"Kabal, we always knew we wanted to focus on what the art team had come up with, which was that these guys were using corrupt elicit mana, external mana sources–powerful but maybe not healthy for you," Place said. "Potions became more of the focus once Kazakus came into being, but we've always been in that mana space. Do you spend your mana? Does your mana change in some way? We were playing around with those mechanics. And we thought it was great when we found Kazakus, because your mana goes into these potions. That was always our goal, to make sure it felt like you were playing around with magic incarnate itself."
Have Some Class
With the family mechanics set, the developer started working on how the individual classes fit into these archtypes. Some, like Mage in Kabal, were a natural fit from the start. Others took a bit of reshuffling.
"Hunter and Rogue were flipped," said Place. "We said, oh, they're actually kind of perfect for both Jade Lotus and for Grimy Goons. Rogue actually started in the Grimy Goons, because Rogue is great for both. Hunter, for this mafia vibe, fit better into Grimy Goons."
As mechanics and cards started to come into play and Blizzard started experimenting with the new tri-class cards, the task became that much more difficult. All of a sudden the balance team had to contend with not just neutral and class-based cards, but also a handful of special cards that were available to multiple classes but not all classes. Traditionally class cards are more powerful than neutral cards, because they can be carefully limited to a particular class. Tri-class cards had to hit a middle-ground between the two, with powerful effects for their family that made them better than neutral cards, but not quite as sharply defined as a class card.
"It was a challenge for the balance team with the tri-class cards, because these are cards that are supposed to have a very powerful impact, but they have a different meaning based on which class you're using," Place said. "So the way you play Don Han'Cho or Kazakus in one deck is going to be different than another deck based on how that class supports it. It was kind of like three sets all in one."
Days of Future Packs
The speed with which Blizzard rolls out new expansions means the team is almost certainly already hard at work on the next one. We don't know what will be coming, but we can certainly take some cues from recent trends.
For one, Blizzard has decoupled Hearthstone from its long-held "Heroes of Warcraft" subtitle. Part of this is simply functional. No one really called it "Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft," and the shorter name is just easier for prospective consumers. But the decoupling also gives the team more flexibility.
"It allows Hearthstone to begin telling its own stories," Place said. "We can tell our own stories that can and often do link hand-in-hand with Warcraft lore but they don't have to. We're often thrilled when World of Warcraft picks up Hearthstone lore, so we're allowing Hearthstone to branch out on its own."
Gadgetzan was also notable for how it borrowed storytelling elements from the single-player adventures to give players on-boarding quests. In this case, Gadgetzan's new family mechanics meant the team had to convey a lot of information to the player about how to use these different families. It was a way of easing the player in and helping them to understand that the actions meant a different kind of deck-building. Place didn't suggest that such storytelling hooks would always be present in expansions, but said it would be "case-by-case based on what is the best way to convey information to the player."
Finally, the factions and tri-class cards may not make the trip to future expansions, but that doesn't mean that we'll see Jade Lotus or Grimy Goons cards disappear from the meta.
"Those things were perfect for Mean Streets, and you'll be seeing things that are compatible with Mean Streets and supportive," Place said. "We'll be thinking, okay, how can we make new cards that change what it means to play Jade Lotus even if we're not using the words 'Jade Golem' on those cards. Some of those might be obvious and some might take a while to discover. I think [Auctionmaster] Beardo is a good example. He's phenomenal with Inspire, especially with Raza. It's incredible, and an example of Mean Streets working with the Grand Tournament."